Monday, September 25, 2006

A Good Kind of Tired

What a weekend! I'm exhausted!

On Saturday I managed to get up and out and do a short but hard road ride, about an hour long, in between rain showers. It was not long enough to really work my legs hard, but I at least got the muscles completely warmed up and did a few sprints to push my anaerobic capacity just a touch. Very nice!

Grace took Isaac to see his counselor and I gave Veronica a bath and washed her hair. When they got back, we all left for Ikea. It was, at long last, the day to buy the new bed!

We envisioned a relatively short trip, just basically ordering what we had already planned. But nothing is ever quite that simple. We should just generally consider a trip to Ikea to be an 8-hour affair. The store was quite crowded.

Vera was quite hyperactive and wanted to run around while Isaac tried to keep after her. We try to emphasize that he really only needs to prevent her from doing things that are very dangerous to her safety (she shouldn't climb the bookcases, for example, or play with light bulbs), but if she wants to handle something relatively unbreakable, or roll around on one of the beds, he should let her, but just keep watchful eye on her. You can't ask a two-year-old to look but not touch, and she is used to exploring her environment actively and will not be at all happy strapped into the stroller the whole time. Isaac does not always have good judgement, though, over what is and is not a safety issue. He is often rough and abrupt with her, and she winds up bellowing in frustration.

We sympathize; she is a demanding little girl, very active, quick, willful, and fully into "terrible two" mode, so it is hard to blame him for getting frustrated, We won't want him to relapse into childish behavior himself, though. Last night he was playing with her wooden blocks, and she wanted them, so we had a situation where our twelve-year-old was in a snarling, yelling tug-of-war with our two-year-old for a baby toy which we've always told her is "her toy"... sigh). Sometimes both of them need a time out, but when do _we_ get to take a time out?

So our evaluation of beds and decision-making process had to be broken into small pieces in between lecturing Isaac and chasing Vera. That's pretty much the story of our lives right now! All rational thought or conversation has to be confined to very short bursts.

We finally settled on very nice mattress, king-sized to fit Grace, myself, and two babies, who will be, for a least a little while, both nursing. This goes on top of a king-sized frame, which is really two twin frames. The frames we chose are the "Sultan Aslarp." So we picked all that out, then paid for it all, buying a few miscellaneous other things like compact fluorescent bulbs, and then had to wait a couple more hours to get through the line for big item pick up, and then roll the stuff ten feet over to set up home delivery.

The delivery process was quite aggravating. We were initially given a twelve-hour window, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. the next day, although they did call the next morning to tell us to expect the truck between ten and two. About 1 p.m. the truck showed up. We live on the ground floor, and we only wanted the mattress brought in through the front door about ten feet into the kitchen and set against the closet, and the flat-packs brought about ten feet more and put on the floor of the living room; no turns, stairwells, narrow passages, etc. The only delivery scenario I could imagine that would be any simpler is if the men just had to dump the things on the sidewalk.

Despite this, the delivery men wanted me to sign a hazardous-delivery waiver. It said, essentially, that in the judgement of Cardinal Logistics, the delivery we were requesting of them was an "atypical" delivery scenario and hazardous, and that I agreed with this assessment, and therefore would not hold Carinal Logistics responsible for any damage claims whatsoever.

Having worked long ago as a stock clerk for a museum gift shop and having dealt with busted merchandise, I saw where this might be leading, and so refused. I argued with the driver for a good five minutes: "Do you think this is an unusual, weird delivery, asking you to take the packages ten yards straight down an un-obstructed hallway and put them on the floor?" "No, it's fine, just sign it." "But if I sign this, I've agreed to something I think isn't true at all, and you are saying yourself that is isn't true." "It doesn't matter; if something is damaged, you still have 48 hours to report it." "But it says right here -- let me read the wording to you -- that I agree to give up my right to file any damage claim whatsoever, so I won't sign this." It was surreal... but I'm patient guy, and I was prepared to refuse the entire delivery rather than sign the waiver.

Finally the delivery man wadded it up and threw it away and they delivered the package. I signed only the usual "I accept delivery, merchandise appears undamaged" form. On the evaluation form I said they did a fine job of delivery, but wrote in something like "THE DRIVER DEMANDED I SIGN A TOTAL DAMAGE WAIVER EVEN THOUGH THIS WAS AN EXTREMELY SIMPLE GROUND-FLOOR DELIVERY." I'm guessing that somehow that evaluation form got lost on the way to review by the supervisor. Or, more likely, the driver is just under instructions to always try to get the client to waive all possible claims of damage, so it isn't really his fault.

Let me be clear, just in case anyone at Cardinal Logistics is reading this: demanding this kind of waiver (I wish I had kept it, or gotten a photocopy of it, but the driver destroyed it) is ridiculous and offensive; you're asking the customer to lie. The driver himself agreed, when asked, that it was not a difficult or unusual delivery, but yet stood there at my front door arguing with me for several minutes, even to the point of lying to my face repeatedly (saying "you can still claim damages," and "no, it's fine") when the document he was asking me to sign said exactly the opposite.

If I had the choice, I would never, ever deal with such dishonest people again. However, they seem to be the only delivery option availabe at the Canton Ikea itself. We just could not manage a king-sized mattress ourselves, even if we had borrowed a pickup truck; it is just too big. I only hope that the next time we want to bring home something large from Ikea we'll be able to come up with another option.

OK, so after all that we had our bed. I had to assemble it. I've put together a lot of Ikea stuff -- many bookshelves, desks, etc. The Aslarp frames were by far the most challenging, not because any particular piece was that difficult, but just because there are a _lot_ of those hex bolts to drive in, and many of them were unusually long and went into wood. Oh, and although I've committed to buying _wooden_ pieces from Ikea whenever possible -- for example, the new bookshelves we've been getting are almost all wood, except for the backing, and that makes it them so much nicer to move around -- the main body of the Aslarp frame is particle board. It's damned heavy!

Add to that the various slightly misaligned parts. At several points pieces didn't quite fit perfectly, and each time I had to make a choice -- is this a defect worth going back to the store over, and trying to resolve, or can I fix it myself with reasonable time and effort, without destroying the particle board panels? For example, there are wooden cross-beams that fit snugly across the bottom. In both frames, the wooden pieces that they fit _between_ were slightly misaligned (one gap was thus slightly two wide, and the other two too narrow) so the beams would not fit. I could get the cross-pieces to fit by sanding about 1/8th of an inch off of each side of the gap, so that's what I did. More work, but I judged it to be less painful thatn trying to get the heavy particle-board pieces replaced.

In other cases, pilot holes were misalighed, so I had to take off metal plates and re-align them before the machine screws would go into the plates; sometimes, more than once. So there was a lot of cursing involved. In the end nothing was so badly out of whack that I couldn't get it securely and (mostly) squarely put together without damage. My hands are seriously chewed up today from twisting those damnable little metal hex wrenches.

The next time I go to the Ikea store I've got to find out if they have some better versions with plastic handles, or some bits that will fit an electric screwdriver. I had a brief diversion into sending Grace to the hardware store for hex drivers, but the ones she brought back almost, but not quite, fit the screw heads. Then she borrowed some other drivers from a friend of the family, and they also almost, but not quite, fit the screw heads.

Imagine that you're reading a long and sarcastic rant about America versus the metric system, tools that almost but don't quite fit, chewed up screw heads, and the rest of the world laughing at me while I am trying to remove misaligned screws with chewed-up heads. Thanks, now I don't have to write that rant; I'm too tired. You know, in grade school I learned the metric system, not the English system, because we were soon going to move over to all-metric. I'm still waiting.

Anyway, what with the cloth covers, the particle-board frame, the wood cross-pieces and their attachment points that all needed sanding to fit, the fiber-board bottom panels that attach to the cross-beams with far too few wood screws, the metal slat frame, the slats themselves, the hinge mechanisms, the ratchet mechanisms, and the hydraulic pistons, all with too little room to work, it took me a full eight hours of nonstop work to get the two frames assembled. Wow.

Imagine you're reading another long and sarcastic rant, this time about paying almost a thousand dollars for a bed, but still having to spend an entire day of labor and aggravation to put the whole thing together. Good, now you won't have to actually read that rant, but you get the idea.

It is interesting how in the Ikea pieces there are no extraneous fasteners, and almost nothing, except possibly stain, is not structural. Even the cloth cover that stretches over the frame provides additional stability. This means that I constantly had the nagging feeling that a couple more bolts or screws would have made the whole thing feel a little more solid. The bottom panels inside the storage space definitely need more wood screws; they are far too unsupported to actually hold much weight, and since they are going into soft wood, it is far too easy to strip the holes.

I'm also imagining how I can possibly move the things later without damaging them; at some point I want to replace some of the bolts that I stripped. The cloth cover allegedly comes off to wash, although it would be quite an ordeal to get it off and back on without destroying the foam padding stapled to the sides.

But, despite all that, at the end of the day we had two really nice-looking bed frames with no sharp edges or corners, with slats that have cool hydraulic lifts and ratchet mechanisms that allow the whole mattress to be fairly easily raised up to access storage space underneath, and a brand new king-size mattress. It's a good thing, too, because I desperately needed to lie down!

Postscript: the mattress is actually very comfortable, even without the separate foam mattress that goes on top of it. We may get that part later. It feels firmer than the queen futon with foam pads on it, but the firmness is superficial, and it provides more "deep down" support, so my hips and neck were not as stiff when I woke up. Grace and Isaac and Vera and Auntie O ate pizza sitting on the new bed, and even though they were sitting on a cover on top of the mattress, managed to stain with tomato sauce the mattress and the cloth covers on both frames, less than an hour after we finished putting it together. Awesome. Inspiring, really!

I guess we'll find out tonight whether the cover is stain-resistant when we try to use the little spot-lifter vacuum on it. And we'll start enforcing a "no eating on the bed" policy. Yeah, that'll work! What exactly were we thinking when we decided to buy bed frames with rounded corners, padding, and cloth covers again? Oh yeah, "no bleeding head wounds when our babies bash their heads on the family bed." I think that will ultimately be worth it! But we will have to keep some towels at the ready at all times to catch new-baby barf!

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Veronica is Reading (Well, Kind Of)

I don't necessarily expect anyone outside our immediate family to believe this, but, our baby girl, just shy of 23 months old (her birthday is October 29th), is reading a few words. Apparently Isaac did the same thing but Grace gave up on trying to tell people because no one would believe her. I don't think I read _that_ early, although I read early.

For example, at the beginning of a DVD, the logo for "Sony Pictures Classics" came on. I wasn't even facing the TV, but she was, and started pointing and saying "Classic." I was quite startled when I figured out what she was referring to! She has also picked words out of our junk mail and read them out loud, pointing and saying them. She also has become interested in the page numbers of books I'm reading.

This seems kind of strange, since she can't reliably count to ten along with us or recite the full ABCs yet. It would seem like one would have to be able to identify and name the letters and make their sounds before learning to read, but apparently that is more how you might teach an older child or adult to read. It's possible to just start pattern-matching without really knowing the rules yet.

In recent days (days, not weeks!) she's become suddenly much more verbal. Her spoken vocabulary has gone up quite dramatically, and she's picked up new ASL signs as well. It's quite startling. Last night I sang "Sing, sing a song" and she repeated the last word of each phrase:

Me: "Sing"
Vera: "Sing"
Me: "Sing a song"
Vera: "Song"
Me: "Sing out loud"
Vera: "Loud"

etc. Very cute! Now if we could just get her to go to bed without a big fuss...

Monday, September 11, 2006

Winning Pie

Grace won second place in pies at a baking contest at St. Francis church on Sunday!

Her winning pie used a combination of butter and lard for the crust, and a peach filling. I'm eating the last of the "first draft" of the winning pie right now. The crust didn't quite come together for the first try, but I think she nailed it on the second try.

Congratulations to Grace!

Spams and Spam Cops

I've cranked my spam filter up to block everything not whitelisted, and I've set up an account on Spamcop. I've submitted a few dozen spam reports using a temporary mail account to see what would happen. What has happened is the spammers are still winning. I had 48 unwanted messages between Friday night and Monday morning. (Two were actually opt-in mailing list announcements; as I find those I've been either whitelisting them, or unsubscribing). Not good. What else can be done? I hear that even newly created e-mail accounts with completely un-publicized addresses start getting spam!

Veronica's Tricycle

Veronica is only 23 months old, but she's already a great runner and climber and seems to have great balance. And she wants to do what we do. A couple of weeks back I took Isaac with me on a bike ride, and as soon as we left Veronica ran to the back door wearing her bike helmet and wailing "but I'm ready!"

So clearly she wants to participate in some way, but the question is how? She'd probably love to ride in one of those Burley trailers, so we might try that, and Grace has a child seat that mounts on her bike, but her bike needs some work, so for the time being I bought her a tricycle.

She can't quite reach the pedals, so I removed the seat and covered up the seat mount with a couple of diapers tied on with a belt. I took her out in the backyard to try pedaling around the sidewalk. I was pushing her, and trying to show her how to work the pedals. She was able to push herself forward with her feet on the ground, so we let her do that for a while. Our family friend Olivia came out to watch and I was chatting with her, and then noticed out of the corner of my eye that even though I was no longer pushing, Vera was still going -- and she was pedaling herself!

She didn't go very far or very long, but she did it a couple of times. I was impressed. I'm going to try to come up with a better temporary seat until she is big enough to sit on the real one. But she was right -- she's ready!

Friday, September 08, 2006

New Baby in 1 Month!

The countdown has begun. Today there is just one month left before the official due date for new baby Sam or Rachel.

We're guessing that like the other children this one will be late, and Grace will need to have labor induced a little later in October. Things could always be different this time, though!

Friday, September 01, 2006

Bikes, Bikes, Bikes

Ahh, the end of summer. When a middle-aged man's fancy turns to thoughts of... biking!

On most clement days I've been biking to work. After my crash earlier this summer I got my bike patched up. My legs are mostly healed up from the obvious damage as well as some more hidden damage. The chainring scars are probably permanent, but they are superficial; what was worrying me more was the lumps in the muscle of my quads near the knee and the burning sensation to the left of my right kneecap. There must have been quite a bit of hidden damage! The lumps are gone and the knee feels considerably better; my quads have expanded so much that I've got some new stretch marks. I've always had a huge difference between strong muscular legs and long skinny arms; it is almost laughable, despite my attempts at weight-training my upper body over the years. That's probably why I feel like biking comes quite naturally.

The bike I use for commuting, as well as occasional beginner to intermediate trail rides, is a Marin Bobcat Trail from around 1998: an aluminum-frame, relatively light, relatively bare-bones mountain bike. I think it was originally about $400. After my first trail ride and the pain it induced in my carpal-tunnel-damaged wrists, I started wearing padded biking gloves with a cut-out chanel to take pressure off the median nerve, and added a front shock and bar ends; after I started using it to commute I changed out the stem and handlebars so that I have a slightly more upright position when I ride.

After the crash I had the bar ends, which were bent up, taken off, and had a new harder seat added, with the newfangled sculpting to try and take pressure off of parts that tend to lose their circulation and go numb. I also changed out the tires after one of them blew out due to dry rot (it was old!) It's been a great bike and I intend to keep it as long as I can. I would only replace it if I started regularly doing some really hard-core trail riding, which I don't envision.

My second bike is a 1999 LeMond Alpe d'Huez. At the time it was the most expensive thing I had ever purchased, at around $1,200. This bike is optimized in a completely different direction: it's made for serious road rides on smooth pavement. If I take it for a short ride, it seems like I only have to pedal very occasionally; it has such low rolling resistance that it seems like I am coasting most of the time. In fact, I am! This also means it is much harder to get a cardio workout on the LeMond -- I have to go much farther, or find some long, steep hills.

The LeMond has an absolutely gorgeous design, with a stainless Campagnolo group that is still in great condition. It came with clipless pedals, the kind you use with bike shoes, but I had never used those so I had pedals with toe cages put on; I know that's not very hard-core, but so be it; my longest rides tended to be less than 40 miles, which isn't much distance for a bike like that (less than three hours). Maybe some day I'll switch.

I started to break down the cheap seat it came with and so put on a hard Bianchi saddle. I had a set of profile aero bars on it and those were fun, but I didn't use them very often, so I just recently took them off and put them in storage for possible use later. I swapped the tires for new ones since they were also getting kind of old and crumbly; I also rotated the handlebars into a slightly higher position so it is easier to reach the brakes without being in a full road crouch.

The LeMond is steel, and basically handles bumps by being more flexible than the aluminum bike. Newer Alpe d'Huez models seem to be aluminum and carbon fiber; I have not tried them. This bike is not for trail riding! When I bought it I was accustomed to doing a lot of brute-force pedaling up hills, and this made things grind a lot because I tended to flex the frame from the force of my pedaling. I had to learn to spin and downshift a bit more, but it is a useful skill. You can only downshift so far; it only has two gears on the front. If I did a great deal of hill-climbing I might consider having a third, lower front gear put on.

When I was looking for a new bike for Isaac, I settled on a low-end Trek aluminum frame mountain bike that cost about as much as my Marin cost originally. However, I regret that choice a bit. While the frame seems to be OK, a lot of the other parts seem to be made of very cheap steel and have rusted out very quickly, even the cables. That's disappointing; I should probably have gone with a more expensive brand known more for quality than quantity and been willing to pay a bit more. We're paying more anyway; we just put some more money into Isaac's bike and replaced the seatpost clamp, which originally had a quick release that is always letting the seat slip down or rotate, the rusted cables, fixed a bent rear derailleur, and replaced his flat pedals with grippier pedals with toe cages.

The theory is that if you have flat pedals you can only transfer force when pushing straight down. If your pedals get wet or muddy or you are climbing, sometimes our feet will slip right off. So instead they make the pedals spikey (they have aluminum cleats that help them grip your shoes), and then there is a "toe cage" that wraps around your toe so you can push straight forward and pull up as well. This lets you use your hamstring to help power the pedals on the up-stroke and also contract your calves on the down-stroke without losing your pedals -- basically, you can use all your leg muscles, and get more efficiency from your pedaling. Isaac found this to be an immediate improvement.

He also got a more hard-core seat: a skinny seat that is mostly hard with pads where the "sit bones" go. Bicycle seats present a bit of a design paradox, like toilet seats. If they really gave you proper full support they would keep you from properly doing what it is you need to do! (You'd lose the ability to go to full extension with your legs). There was a Dilbert cartoon that summed this up by saying something like "problem: bicycle seats are hard. Solution: wear funny pants.") This seems to imply that the real solution would be to make the seats softer. That's not really a great solution, though, except in limited cases, as I'll explain.

Bike seats seem to have split into two camps. The idea is that if you are going for a slow, short ride, and you're not a jock, and your seat is lower so that you aren't actually using the full extension of your legs, padding is nice and keeps your rear end from getting sore by spreading the pressure around and distributing it widely.

This only goes so far, though. The problem is that some of your parts are not designed to handle sustained pressure! For a longer ride you actually want your weight to be supported primarily on your "sit bones" with a little padding under them, but you want the seat out of the way of your legs, so you can fully extend them. You don't want a lot of additional padding, which will pinch on nerves and arteries (if you're a man, it can cause sterility!) Also, when your legs are strong, you wind up carrying less of your weight on your seat, and you tend to stand up on the pedals occasionally to stretch things out, and so your seat is not such a big factor anymore. Yes, I do still get a bit sore on a rock-hard seat, even wearing bike shorts with a chamois pad in them... but less sore than on a soft seat, and I don't get tingling and numbness in my whole groin, which indicates I'm compromising blood flow down there, and doing (possibly permanent) damage.

I'm hoping to take Isaac on a road ride with me this weekend!